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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Creative Play and Scientific Inquiry, Part 1: Preparing Kids for More Than Just a Test

Anthony Cody

Science Coach and mentor, Oakland, California

Creative play on the part of young children may be far more valuable than anyone has realized. I caught a fascinating story about this issue on NPR last week.

The critical discovery, according to the report, is that "social pretend play is an excellent means for exercising and building up the executive functions of working memory (children must hold their own role and those of others in mind), inhibitory control (children must inhibit acting out of character), and cognitive flexibility (children must flexibly adjust to unexpected twists and turns in the evolving plot). But social pretend play doesn't have much value if children are free to abandon a play scenario after a few moments or are not held accountable for staying within their chosen role.

"Adults need to facilitate any play -- adults who are trained in observing children and in understanding how play contributes to their mastery of concepts and skills," the NPR report concludes.

These comments led me to an epiphany: In the past decade, we have moved toward standardized tests for kindergartners and a greater amount of structured instruction for young students. The pressure on teachers, in many cases, forces us to reduce the amount of time we make available for creative play. I believe the researchers are suggesting that this creative play results in an increase in student self-regulation. It seems to me that the more we pile on test preparation and scripted curriculum, the less ability students will have to focus and to exercise self-control. They will also exhibit less curiosity.

As a science teacher, I see parallels in the work we do with older students. I have felt for a long time that students are far more motivated and engaged when we give them the opportunity to develop their own investigations, to engage in real inquiry into questions they care about. But the emphasis recently has been on getting them to memorize ever longer lists of science facts so they can answer multiple-choice questions.

When I was working with a fourth-grade class last year, I asked them to come up with possible experiments we could do to find out what affected the growth of a plant. Some were able to make suggestions, but quite a few were at a loss. They needed me to tell them exactly what I wanted. They were OK at answering simple questions, but when I said, "Come up with your own question to investigate," they looked at me as if I had asked them to fly. I think this confusion occurred because they had not experienced this sort of challenge before. They are accustomed to scripted curriculum, worksheets, and answering questions based on readings.

We are also experiencing a significant increase in the dropout rate -- more than 50 percent in some areas, especially among the students most targeted by scripted curriculum and test preparation: African American and Latino students in impoverished communities. Dropping out might be the ultimate failure of self-regulation, the ultimate alienation from school and education as a whole.

I hope we are able to delve into the dropout rate more deeply to find out the reasons for it. My fear is that our emphasis on test preparation has debased our whole educational enterprise. I have experienced this outcome firsthand when students challenge a teacher on why they should learn something. The standard response has become, "Because it is on the test." This is circular reasoning, and students know it. We have moved away from the real reasons to learn, which are that learning satisfies our curiosity and allows us to do worthwhile and creative things.

Please share your thoughts, and read part two of this entry.

Anthony Cody

Science Coach and mentor, Oakland, California
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Lisa V.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a child, I vividly remember "playing" at school. I was a cook, a builder, and a teacher. During this time was when I decided that I wanted to be a teacher. As a parent as well, I see the many things that are learned through play. In addition to self-awareness, cooperation with others, and being dependent, children learn to be problem-solvers. They learn through stacking blocks how to build correctly. Through role-play, they are creating worlds in which we cannot completely control. They are becoming independent and this does indeed carry over to the classroom as they develop as students. Many state standards are changing - they are focusing on problem-solving. Teachers need to be co-learners, involving the students in the curriculum. Employees today want to hire someone who can take a problem and fix it independently. With the shift in technology, many manual jobs are being handled by computers. Those that are going to be valued in the work force are those who can make problems disappear with little to no supervision. I truly believe this starts through play.

Alana Dixon's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree, I am also frustrated by the fact that children can perform poorly all year and "magically" meet on a standardized test and go on the the next grade level. We have children on both ends of the spectrum who suffer greatly. We are "leaving behind" many lifeling learners and creating students who only know how to "pass" the test. What a shame!

pherrington's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I work with third grade African American and Hispanic children who are very impoverished. My school is on spring break this week. Starting next week, we are in what is called "CRCT Count Down." CRCT is the acronym for for Georgia's state test.

For the next 3 weeks, I have been mandated to review in the areas of reading, language arts, and math. These three subjects will consume the teaching day. There are also two days in which the students will not be allowed to attend P.E because of the test preparation.

Last week, we completed our third benchmark test for reading and language arts and our third post test for mathematics. Next week, we will pre-test for mathematics, then start the review period.

Over the past 5 months, I have been teaching in an afterschool program for one and a half hours, 2 to 3 days a week, and teaching for 3 hours, two Saturdays a month, to help at risk students.

My students are stressed out and fed up. Discipline problems are at an all time high! I have 9 and 10 year old children who are stressed enough in their personal lives given their living conditions. Now, with the added stress of passing a state test at the end of each school year, is there any wonder why so many children drop out. If it is enough to make me want to self medicate, what will the effect be on my students.

What happened to recess, playing, and having a good time? Making lasting memories of past school days? School isn't about developing a love for education, it is about passing CRCT and making AYP!

Adriana's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I remember loving school (especially elementary school!) I did not want to miss a day...it was fun! We worked in class, but there was time to explore and be creative.
I feel terrible for my Kindergarten students. They never get a chance to role play/pretend or just be 5 year olds. It is a nonstop day. There is so much pressure for them to read on a certain level by the end of the school year.
I was reprimanded at the beginning of the school year for allowing my 5 year students the opportunity to explore a kitchen and art center "once" a week. I had to remove the two centers from my classroom. I was told this should be in a Pre-Kindergarten class.

Walitia's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The emphasis on passing standardized tests is really dumbing down our society. No one's being creative and students are learning just enough to pass a test. Play and imagination should be a part of learning at all levels and not just primary. We need more discovery in education and real learning can not be measured on a multiple choice test one day out of the year.

Jen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Practices you mentioned, like creating original experiments, at some point became reserved for the gifted classroom. In the early 1990's - the gifted classroom was the only real place students created their own learning. In the last few years though, I have witnessed more and more classroom teachers reclaiming these practices in their classrooms. As a gifted teacher, I work much harder than gifted teachers of the past did to find a way to make my classroom setting different and more challenging than the regular classroom. Instead of lecturing, I see teachers beginning to question their young students - turning the table on sit-n-get classroom methods.

Kilee's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

By only teaching to what is tested, students are losing out on valuable information. Students today aren't being challenged as much before all these standardized tests came about. We are only teaching material that meets a multiple choice test taken once during the year. So much emphasis and stress is placed on teachers to make sure students pass. Students today aren't using a higher-level thinking. They expect answers to be given to them.

Katie I.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with the notion that students need to get more valuable learning out of their schooling that they can apply to their lives in general. School and learning should be fun - to some extent. We've all heard the saying, "all work and no play makes for a dull life." However, we can't play all the time; some aspects of life do require work; that's just reality. I like the notion of a compromise between work and play. Students should be permitted creativity and choice in the curriculum. However, whether we, as educators, like it or not, standardized tests are a part of the requirement. Our students have to pass them to graduate and if they don't pass, it is a reflection (although in many cases, an unfair one) upon the teachers. Is it stressful for both students and teachers? Yes. Is it the only thing that matters in learning and education? NO. Is it mandatory though? Yes. I think the best thing to do is integrate as much as possible - creativity, fun, freedom of student choice, and test-based standards - all together. On the note of students expecting answers to be given to them, we can't allow that to happen. Don't give them the answer, teach them how to find it.

stacy bertuccelli's picture
stacy bertuccelli
Magnet Coordinator @ Melrose Elementary Math/Science/Technology Magnet

Education in elementary school has been becoming steadily sensory deprived in the past 15 years. Such an absurdity in relation to what brain research teaches. Glad that we are moving back to involving the whole student and not just the pencil and paper in isolation.

Kellie's picture

I guess I am lucky after reading Adriana's post. Although we don't have standarized tests my kindergartners are expected to be at a certain reading level and to meet the state standards by the end of the year but we take time to play every day. My principal, who used to be a kinder teacher, understands that this is needed in the day. It is very different from when I used to be in school but 5 year olds need time to be 5 year olds during the day too.

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